‘Ashes to go’


Ashes to go
On Ash Wednesday, members of Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in New York City walked the streets, marking people with the sign of the cross in ashes and praying with them.

By Michael Brenner

A few Ash Wednesdays ago, Stephen Swanson, pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, Villa Park, Ill., saw a pastor, Emily Mellott, at a local train station. Emily, from Calvary Episcopal Church in Lombard, was distributing ashes to passengers on the platform. Impressed by the idea, Stephen called her later and bluntly stated, “We’re going to copy you.”

Over the last five years, Stephen has not been the only one with this idea. Congregations across the country are bringing the ancient practices of Ash Wednesday to places it is not usually found. Not content to invite people to attend church, the congregations are going to the people in the midst of their often busy, mobile lives. This trend has received a lot of attention by news organizations across the country, and there is even an ecumenical website dedicated to the practice — ashestogo.org.

On the Union West Line, a commuter train that goes from Chicago’s far western suburbs to downtown, passengers of all denominations received ashes on their way to work. Stephen has even seen clergy from less liturgical churches, such as Baptists, participating in the time-honored ritual.

“It’s quite an ecumenical thing we have in Villa Park,” Stephen says. “It’s binding people together.”

A new experience for some

This was the fourth year of bringing ashes to the people for Stephen and St. Paul Lutheran Church. For others, such as Edison Park Lutheran Church in Chicago, the experience is new. The congregation’s pastor, Michael Sparby, and its members brought ashes to the public but also offered an all-day “Ashes on the Hour” service, which combined mobile and congregation-based ministry opportunities.

Edison Park Lutheran placed signs several days ahead of the event, so the community was not surprised when Michael and others were on the train platform on Ash Wednesday. The community embraced the opportunity.

“I was kind of amazed at the response,” Michael says. “People were very appreciative of us being there.”

Moving into daily life and culture

The efforts of St. Paul Lutheran and Edison Park Lutheran mirror a larger trend of bringing the ritual of Ash Wednesday, which begins the 40 days of Lent, outside the church and into people’s daily lives. The response has been very positive, from clergy and laity alike.

Michael pointed out that in an age where the church is drawing back from popular culture, this is a perfect opportunity to “get the body of Christ right back out there.” When asked if there were any drawbacks to the practice, Michael couldn’t think of a one.  

Stephen, on the other hand, could think of one potential negative to the new practice — complacency. As long as he doesn’t become satisfied with the success of this practice, and only this practice, Stephen is pleased with offering ashes on the go. While the practice is mostly seen within a general Christian framework, Stephen offered a Lutheran angle by recalling that everyone, and not just the clergy, can practice the ritual. Both Stephen and the person next to him are part of the priesthood of all believers.

New Yorkers also received ashes on the go this year. Chris Mietlowski, the pastor and part of an 18-person team from Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, brought ashes to some unconventional places. The service was provided in a drug store, a hotel and even an Irish pub. By the end of the day, Gustavus Adolphus had served more than 900 people.

There’s a hunger for God

One thing the congregations that took to the streets had in common was connecting with people who were not church regulars or hadn’t been there in years. There is still a longing and respect for this ritual among people who even marginally consider themselves Christians. Gustavus Adolphus members regularly saw people in tears, and those from Edison Park Lutheran noticed the ritual’s power to break down barriers between the church and people in public.

“There’s a lot more we don’t totally understand, but it’s clear that the ritual has deep meaning for people in our culture,” Michael says. “Maybe it’s just enough to open someone up to paying a little more attention to their hunger for God.”

Michael Brenner is a graduate of Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, a legal researcher and a former journalist.

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